OPINION: Is it a difficult client or a difficult situation?

Lately I have been running an internal training series for our account service teams around the always timely topic of managing clients. It is clear to me now that these subjects are always left to the oldest person in the room because, judging by their crankiness, they are presumably the ones with the most practical experience in these matters.

As I prepared for this I reflected on the myriad of “difficult” clients I had encountered in the past 30 years and felt reasonably comfortable that this was indeed a topic on which I could offer my sage advice. The beauty of working for a global enterprise is that these courses nearly always come pre-packaged and this was no exception. There was a 68-page deck with examples and exercises and copious notes. Everything I expected really and no real interest in using it. After all, I had years of experience.

What I wasn’t expecting was to be challenged by the opening slide that set up the basic premise of “What is a difficult client?”. A pretty simple concept, you might imagine. I had encountered many, dare I say a hundred or more over the past 30 years. There was the woman from the cat society that made me re-write 200 pages of a catalogue (before computers) because she hadn’t read the proof and expected me to get it right the first time, every time. There was the billionaire who made me pulp three million brochures because he didn’t like black cars - I could go on.

What I found challenging though was the question, “Is this a difficult client or a difficult situation?”. I hadn’t thought about it like that before. On reflection, the vast majority of my clients have been great people and many have gone on to become lifetime friends and colleagues. So how many clients were really difficult? When I applied the test to the 10 or 20 who sprang to mind, it was clear that in most cases they were very much difficult situations and not difficult clients.

Creating this distinction makes it so much easier to move forward. Understanding that you are dealing with a difficult situation tends to take the emotion and mystery out of the issue and allows you to focus on the real issue and the solution. Working towards finding a solution without the pressure of personality clashes or imagined conspiracies does make life easier and the job more pleasant.

After reading the email or taking the heated phone call, that simple question may make all the difference. Instead of seeing the repetition of complaints, you may begin to un-earth a quality issue in the business. Instead of complaining about the subjective way in which the creative is always judged, you may end up having a conversation about training on how to evaluate creative thinking. It’s harder for a client to argue when you are genuinely trying to improve the work and the relationship.

Does that mean then that there is no such thing as a difficult client? I don’t think so, but it may help you realise that the truly difficult ones are few and far between.

Doug Chapman
Managing Director
Amnesia Razorfish

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